That might account for the difference between Van Voast's experience and that of the Outdoor Co-Ed Topless Pulp Fiction Appreciation Society, a book club that has met in Manhattan parks for the past three summers. Society members are, by and large, in their early to mid-20s, and while they attract a crowd, they say they've never experienced serious harassment from the police, much less the threat of arrest. (Van Voast and the book clubbers agree that being topless in a group is nothing like going it alone.)

Kuby dismisses any notion that police were ever concerned Van Voast might be in the throes of a mental health crisis.

"Holly videoed most of her conduct that resulted in her arrests and her commitments," he explains. "There's absolutely nothing in her behavior — at least by New York City standards — that would convey as floridly psychotic or anything else, besides the fact that she's clearly outspoken and in your face.

Ron Kuby says his client’s performance “bothers a lot of people at some sort of deep level I’m not qualified to assess.”
Caleb Ferguson
Ron Kuby says his client’s performance “bothers a lot of people at some sort of deep level I’m not qualified to assess.”

"Was she agitated when she was dragged off to a mental institution for exercising her rights?" the lawyer continues. "Yeah, she was reasonably agitated. But agitated is not floridly psychotic, or even disturbed. I would be agitated too. I would rip shit. They'd have to put me in handcuffs."

In May 2013, with the help of Kuby and another civil rights attorney, Katherine Rosenfeld, Van Voast sued the city, the NYPD, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and several dozen individual officers, accusing them of unlawful imprisonment, negligent hiring, and violating her constitutional rights.

As they deposed police officer after officer, it became clear to Kuby and Rosenfeld that Van Voast's assessment had been on the mark: Most of the cops had no idea toplessness was legal. One officer, Philip Wong, testified that he'd arrested Van Voast in a subway station because "it's a hazard. . . . It's rare to see somebody, a female, topless in the train station."

"Was there a violation of the law?" Rosenfeld asked him.

"There's public lewdness," he replied.

Rosenfeld and Kuby were aware that at 10 consecutive roll calls, beginning in February of this year, NYPD commanders read their 34,000 officers a memo. It reminded them that women aren't committing a crime by "simply exposing their breasts in public."

Police officers in New York state have had a long time to get used to the notion of a woman going shirtless in public. A quarter-century before Holly Van Voast first unpeeled her pasties, Ramona Santorelli and Mary Lou Schloss made history at a topless picnic a group of feminists staged for the sole purpose of getting arrested.

"We chose June 21, the summer solstice," Santorelli says of the watershed event in 1986. Nine women took off their shirts and waited for police to arrest them. The activists were charged with violating New York state penal law section 245.01, which prohibits exposing "the private or intimate parts" of one's body. The law went on to spell out a crucial gender distinction: On "a female person," said "parts" included "that portion of the breast which is below the top of the areola."

The event was eagerly covered by local reporters, who found plenty of smirk-worthy fodder.

"'Doffing our tops,' 'baring our breasts' — all these really nasty ways to describe women taking off their shirts," says Santorelli, who coaches girls' basketball and works as a life coach for adults.

Santorelli will stop you the instant the T-word crosses your lips.

"That word, 'topless,' it puts a huge red flag up for me," she says. "It makes my hair stand up every time. Holly likes the word, but I do not. It fuels the patriarchal values of how women are viewed. It has the connotation to topless bars and pornography, which from day one was what we were trying to get away from." Although the two women admire each other very much, she says, "Holly will not agree with me on this. We've even had some debates about it."

After their arrest, Santorelli and Schloss (the latter prefers not to speak to reporters) sued the state, alleging that section 245.01 was discriminatory and unconstitutional. After a six-year battle, the case reached New York's highest court. In 1992, a panel of New York State Court of Appeals judges ruled that the "discriminatory effect" of the law did not "serve an important governmental interest," and that the classification was not "based on a reasoned predicate." The panel further noted that New York was one of only two states that "criminalizes the mere exposure by a woman in a public place of a specific part of her breast."

The ruling was published in July of that year. But for a long time afterward, it wasn't widely known that a woman could go shirtless anyplace a man could.

"I've lost a lot of jobs because of my activism in my early years," Santorelli says today. "It's hard for me as a basketball coach. I lost a lot of opportunities. If I had to do it all over again, I may not have. I'm 55 now. I'm in a situation where I didn't devote a lot of my time to a career. I was more political, and an out lesbian — being very active that way. It cost me. You give up something for causes. I think I forfeited a career, that's what I think. But you learn to live with it. I have friends who think it's fantastic. I look at them and think: 'What the hell was I thinking? What the hell did I do to myself?'"

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